Pakistan and the Xi-Biden summit
In an age of great power competition, what matters most is the trajectory of China-US relations. The US has characterized China as its most consequential strategic competitor. There is bipartisan consensus in the US on the so-called China threat. From Trump’s trade wars to the chip’s ban imposed by Biden, the US has toyed with ideas on containing China. Faced with wars in Ukraine and Gaza, there is a realization that relations with China need to be steadied. The San Francisco Xi — Biden summit provided an opportunity to set some guardrails in the China-US relationship.
Chief among them was an agreement to resume communications between the two militaries and high level contacts that had been stalled for over a year due to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. The idea that both sides ‘manage’ their relations carefully to avoid miscommunication and wrong reading of intent is important. These agreements would help stabilize relations. Agreement was reached on cooperation in science and technology, artificial intelligence, trade, agriculture, and climate change. Both sides agreed to address the source of the opioid fentanyl and China will seek to prevent the fentanyl precursors from being sent to the US.
Among global issues, Taiwan and the conflict in Gaza figured. Xi said that Taiwan was the biggest and most dangerous issue facing the two sides. The Chinese leader said that China had no plans for military action against Taiwan in coming years but also discussed conditions under which force could be used. On the Middle East, Biden asked China to weigh in with Iran and urge it to avoid steps that could be seen as provocative. Chinese officials told the US side that they had engaged in discussions with Iran on regional risks. Xi is reported to have told Biden that: “For two large countries like China and the US, turning their back on each other is not an option…it is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other.” Also that the world was large enough for both countries to succeed.
If China and the US could engage, so should Pakistan and India.
China-US relations seem to have entered a new phase of cautious engagement. The Chinese appreciation of the meeting is positive. ‘The San Francisco summit identified the direction and drew up the blueprint for the future development of China-US relations.’ This is all good, but in the US election year ahead, domestic politics may again start impacting relations negatively. China surely understands the nuances and will be prepared to react appropriately.
For Pakistan, the lesson that needs to be learned is that the US-China relationship will continue to evolve. But the trends toward China’s containment will persist. This essentially means that the Indo-US partnership will continue to deepen and broaden. Options for Pakistan are therefore limited. Mending relations with India is something that needs to be considered seriously. The idea of balancing relations between the US and China is talked about, but it has very little meaning. China is a strategic cooperative partner and the US is a friend of convenience. It is in Pakistan’s own interests to have good relations with both.
Foremost, Pakistan needs to overcome its internal issues and seek political stability and economic well being. Being a small country in comparative terms, Pakistan is not in a position to play any significant role in the current situation. We need to take concrete steps to start improving relations with all neighbors. With Iran we need to bring the gas pipeline to fruition, and enhance trade and communications. With Afghanistan, building trade and commercial ties and with China taking forward our strategic cooperative partnership. It is time meaningful steps be taken toward normalizing relations with India. If China and the US could engage, so should Pakistan and India.
- Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.